A ‘casteless’ society: an aspiration or a myth to cover up privilege?

Context: Despite attempts to create an egalitarian and modern society, the caste system remains a prominent feature of Indian society. Historically, castes, which are often associated with certain occupations, were arranged in a hierarchy, with some castes considered superior to others and thus accorded more power and privileges than others. This system of social stratification and power relations has been a major problem in India as it has led to discrimination and inequality for those belonging to lower castes.


Caste is an institution unique to Indian sub-continent. Although it is an institution characteristic of Hindu society, caste has spread to the major non-Hindu communities of Indian sub-continent like Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. 


Change in Caste system 

Traditional nature of caste system has undergone significant changes in modern-day society. Many features of caste system have been diluted to some extent due to new developments like:

  • Modern Education instilled values like rationality, justice and equality. Modern educated youth are preferring inter-caste marriages.
  • Industrialisation gave equal opportunity to all individuals across castes. This destroyed traditional caste-based occupation feature of caste system.
  • Urbanisation gave anonymity to caste identities of individuals and caste based dietary choices and commensality rules are no more strictly adhered to in urban areas. Ex. Restaurants, Eateries.
  • Land reforms undertaken by Indian government after Independence has resulted in transfer of Land from upper castes to lower castes. This resulted in economic empowerment and improved status of lower caste groups.
  • Universal adult franchise; 73rd & 74th Amendment acts together gave political power to lower castes if they have adequate numerical strength
  • Constitutional rights and Affirmative action like article 14,15, 16 and reservation policies empowered lower castes educationally and economically.

However, despite all these modern forces of changes, caste system continued to exist in Indian society performing some old and new functions

Continuity of Caste

  • Private realm: Though ritual aspect of Caste system continued but confined to personal sphere.
  • Though Industrialisation and Modern education gave new economic opportunities. Even today, most manual scavengers are from lower castes and many entrepreneurs are from upper castes.
  • According to a 2010 study on social discrimination by Oxfam India, Dalits and tribal groups are highly under-represented in better paid and higher status jobs, while they are disproportionately concentrated among those with lower wages in the informal sector.
  • Caste based Political mobilization Advent of democratic political apparatus like Universal adult franchise made Caste based political mobilization possible and rendered caste-based identity relevant.
  • New components of status like Education, Income and occupation led to breaking of barriers of sub- caste for the purpose of Marriage. But Marriage between Upper caste and lower caste is still an exception. Ex: Honour killings

Caste assuming new identities 

Caste identities have evolved and assumed new dimensions, which have further strengthen the institution of caste system. Following are the examples where association with cast identities have larger incentives vis a vis a casteless society.

The politicization of caste – Perhaps, the most eventful and important sphere of change has been that of politics. From its very beginnings in independent India, democratic politics has been deeply conditioned by caste. Since the 1980s there has been emergence of explicitly caste-based political parties  (For ex. Bahujan Samaj Party , BSP). In the early general elections, it seemed as though caste solidarities were decisive in winning elections. But the situation soon got very complicated as parties competed with each other in utilising the same kind of caste calculus. 

Concept of Dominant caste – ‘Dominant caste’ is a term used to refer to those castes which had a large population and were granted land rights by the partial land reforms effected after Independence. Once they got land rights, they acquired considerable economic power. Their large numbers also gave them political power in the era of electoral democracy , and this gave rise to demands of reservation by several of these dominant castes. (For ex. Jats in Haryana, Patidars in Gujrat , Marathas is Maharashtra etc)

Invisibility and Visibility of caste identity – For upper people belonging to upper caste , caste identity plays no part in their public lives, and is limited to the personal sphere of religious practice or marriage and kinship. However, For the scheduled castes and tribes and the backward castes – the opposite has happened. For them, caste has become all too visible, because they must compete with an already entrenched upper caste group, they cannot afford to abandon their caste identity for it is one of the few collective assets they have The policies of reservation and other forms of protective discrimination instituted by the state in response to political pressure serve as their lifelines. But using this lifeline tends to make their caste the all-important and often the only aspect of their identity that the world recognises.

PYQ – 2018

Q. “Caste system is assuming new identities and associational forms. Hence, caste system cannot be eradicated in India.” Comment. 

PYQ – 2020

Q. Has caste lost its relevance in understanding the multi-cultural Indian society? Elaborate your answers with illustrations. 

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